Q&A: Advice on successful weaner pig management

At weaning, piglets experience multiple challenges, such as the stress of being taken from the sow and being mixed with other pigs.

Establishing a new pecking order, getting used to a different environment and adapting to a change of diet can add to this stress. Health challenges may also occur around this time.

Evidence suggests growth rates during the first few weeks after weaning is positively correlated with subsequent lifetime performance.

This means it is essential to establish the weaner immediately after weaning to maintain growth rates.

Farmers Weekly spoke to Andrew Palmer and Pat Loten, knowledge exchange managers at AHDB Pork, about the key areas to focus on when it comes to improving weaner management.

See also: 4 options for keeping piglets warm

What are they key requirements/indicators at weaning?

Average litter weight and a good weaning weight (usually about 7.5kg at 26 days) is critical.

However, it is also important to consider the spread of that weight. For example, a litter could be seen as excellent if the average weight is 8kg rather than 7kg.

But if that average is based on the fact some pigs have weighed in at 12kg and the rest at 4kg, it will cause issues in the post-weaning and finishing stages.

A piglet weaned at 8kg rather than 7kg will finish on average 8.6 days earlier.

Research has shown heavier piglets at weaning have better lifetime performance than lighter contemporaries, and weaning weight is a more accurate indication of post-weaning growth than either birthweight or age.

What do producers need to consider when preparing weaner accommodation?

Unfavourable conditions can severely affect feed intake, increase the risk of disease and reduce growth rates.

In an ideal scenario, weaner accommodation should be run on an all-in, all-out basis. This means it should be cleaned, disinfected and dried between batches.

It is also important to ensure there is adequate dry bedding to provide warmth or, if you are using slatted floor pens, it can be beneficial to heat the house to the correct temperature before introducing the piglets.

Extra feeder space is important, too, as weaned pigs often like to eat in large, social groups.

Lighting is key, and timers should be used to control light and dark patterns. Extra lighting periods helps weaned pigs get used to their new surroundings and is an aid to reduce stress levels and encourage feed and water intakes.

Increasing the photoperiod to 16 hours of light and eight hours of darkness can improve health, feed intake and gain (see p6 of the AHDB Lighting in Buildings PDF). 

Look out for behavioural patterns such as huddling or dunging in the lying area, which could indicate chilling.

What are the most important factors to consider?

It is important to ensure a smooth transition at weaning. This is done largely through creep feeding to prepare the piglet’s digestive system for the next stage.

Creep feeding initiates and promotes gut and digestive enzyme development, which enables the piglet to digest nutrients from food sources other than milk. This encourages feed intake, which is one of the greatest challenges to post-weaning performance.

Studies have shown supplementing sow milk with creep feed can result in better pre- and post-weaning performance, leading to an overall improvement in net return of up to £2 a pig.

As a rule, creep feeding should start when piglets are aged 7-10 days. Offer creep on a flat surface – such as a shallow tray – and give it to the piglets when the sows are feeding, as the piglets are active and unlikely to be suckled for some time.

A key factor to consider is quantity – it’s important not to overfeed. Instead, feed to appetite and ensure fresh water is always available.

Dehydration at weaning, as a result of changing from a liquid diet to a solid feed, can have a big effect on the newly weaned pig.

Studies have shown, in some cases, pigs have taken in excess of 48 hours before they eat. A common practice is to gruel feed for two to three days after weaning to help pigs get over any stress and to help maintain gut fill and limit potential scouring.

See also: Creep feeding guide

To make the transition as smooth as possible, it is worth considering using the same creep before and immediately after weaning.

This should be a good-quality, palatable and highly digestible feed which piglets will find appealing. Sticky meal that sticks to the piglets’ snouts and requires them to lick it may also encourage intake.

Increasing weaning weight and daily feed intake after weaning, as a result of good creep feeding, often results in increased daily gain and improved food conversion ratio after weaning, delivering a net margin benefit of about £1.20 a pig.

A lifetime benefit in growing pig performance can also be expected, resulting in a net margin benefit of about £1-£2 a pig sold, or pigs being sold three to four days earlier.

What are the key causes of stress at weaning and how can these challenges be overcome?

At weaning, the piglet experiences multiple challenges. As a result, daily liveweight gain, which can be about 300g/day the week before weaning (assuming weaning at 28 days), can be reduced by up to 200g/day.

To compensate for this, it is important to move and handle piglets calmly and keep mixing to a minimum. Where piglets are weaned at varying ages, younger piglets are less likely to be able to adapt to the stresses of weaning.

Where litters are mixed, try to sort piglets by size to reduce stress and enable correct feeding, which should help to minimise variation at the later stages of life.

What do producers need to think about in terms of vaccinations at weaning?

The key thing to note about vaccinations is that only healthy pigs should be jabbed.

Where you do vaccinate, ensure this is done in close collaboration with your vet, as there are now new administration methods being used.

Correct handing and movement of pigs is also key, and purpose-built vaccination races are now frequently being used – alongside a reduction in manual handling – to improve vaccine uptake and success.

Remember, vaccinating pigs at weaning is another additional stress in an already challenging period for piglets.
Some vaccines can now be given before weaning – while the pigs are still suckling – but these are mainly for indoor units.

Weaned pig requirements (6-20kg)

Piglet weight

Environmental temperature (C)

Minimum unobstructed floor area (sq m)

Water (litres/day)

Water flow rate (litres/day)

Drinker height (mm)

Feeder space (mm)

 

Straw bedded

Fully slatted

 

 

 

 

 

 

6

27

30

0.15

1.0-1.5

0.3

200

130

75

7

26

29

0.15

1.0-1.5

0.4

200

130

75

8

24

28

0.15

1.0-1.5

0.5

200

130

75

10

21

25

0.15

1.5-2.0

0.5-1.0

250

130

33

15

19

23

0.2

1.5-2.0

0.5-1.0

300

150

38

20

15

21

0.2

2.0

1.0-1.5

350

200

45

Source: Ahdb Pork